Further notes on my occasional hobby/obsession with snapping pictures while strapped into an airliner seat: The scene above shows the Byron Generating Station (a nuclear power plant) in Ogle County, Illinois, about 70 miles west of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The view here was taken July 26, 2012, from American Airlines Flight 1661, to San Francisco, about 12 and a half minutes after takeoff (we lifted off the runway at 6:43 p.m. CDT, about two hours late). The view here is north/northeast. The Rock River is at the left, and the town of Byron is at the upper right, about three miles from the plant; the town of Oregon, Illinois, is just out of the frame at the lower left.
As it happens, Kate and I were driving in this area last week, and when I saw the plant’s cooling towers in the distance I started looking for a place to stop and take a picture. We found Razorville Road, which runs north-south about a mile west of the plant, and pulled off. The roadside was studded with “No Trespassing” signs, and I was careful not to stray beyond them. I half expected armed guards to show up, but none did. I got my pictures, and we drove off to another local attraction, the Black Hawk statue at Lowden State Park.
Since I always seem to be taking pictures, it seems natural that I started taking pictures of my dad on most of our visits the last few years. It wasn’t until late July, the week he died, that I looked back on what I had taken over the last year or so. I made several visits last summer, and then there was a long hiatus–from his 90th birthday weekend all the way until this past May. Over that time, his situation had changed. After a couple of episodes of pneumonia, his advancing dementia, loss of mobility, incontinence, and other issues, he needed round-the-clock nursing care. That meant he had to leave the home of my sister, Ann, and her husband, Dan, with whom he’d lived since the end of 2008, and enter a nursing home Evanston.
When he went into the facility, called Dobson Plaza, he was in pretty rough shape. He’d been there a couple of weeks by the time I visited in May and by then he seemed to have bounced back a little. I say a little: He was quite weak, confined to a wheelchair, and needed assistance for virtually every daily chore beyond feeding himself. He undertook that task with competence but little enthusiasm–maybe because his intake was reduced to pureed meals because he was having difficulty swallowing and was in danger of aspirating food and triggering another lung infection. There wasn’t much of a question that we–Dad, my siblings and I–were now waiting for the next turn, and the next turn would not be for the better.
He was losing weight, and by early July that prompted a discussion with his doctor of what kind of intervention might be appropriate (they could give him a drug of some kind to stimulate appetite). Before that conversation could reach a conclusion, I think, he suffered another bout of pneumonia and was taken up to Evanston Hospital (from my impression not a bad place to wind up if you’re in that part of the world and need medical attention). By coincidence, my brother John and I had arranged to visit at this time–he from New York, I from California–and got into town a couple days after he was hospitalized.
The news turned out to be worse than pneumonia. He was suffering congestive heart failure and tests detected the presence of fluid in the chest cavity around his lungs, signaling some other infection or even a malignancy. John and I got to Chicago late on a Saturday night, and Sunday we had a family meeting with Ann and our other brother, Chris. Since Dad had been suffering dementia, Ann had power of attorney, and among us we agreed that the course of action Dad would have pursued, or that our mom would have pursued if she’d been around, was hospice care. In essence, that meant ending aggressive attempts to fight the infections and other issues Dad was suffering from and focusing instead on taking what measures we could to make him comfortable in his remaining time. And that time? Well, he was about five weeks short of his 91st birthday and his body had kept going through a lot of hard stuff. We didn’t know whether we were looking at a day, a week, a month, or more.
Then Chris, John, and I went to see him in the hospital. Since I’d seen him in May, I felt I was prepared for what we’d see. And I wasn’t shocked to see that he was gaunter than he had been or that he looked really knocked out. But it also struck me for the first time that I was in the presence of someone who was dying, and that the death was not some abstract thing out there somewhere in the future. It was near.
Although you can fool yourself. You see someone that you’ve known your whole life, someone who has kept going through some pretty rough stuff, and anything positive–an alert look, a quick response to a question, a willingness to eat–becomes an encouraging sign. We spent about eight hours with Dad in his room, and I think we all were constantly aware of the monitors keeping track of his heart rate, his oxygen levels, his respiration. He dozed a lot, and a couple of times he seemed agitated as he started awake. His heart rate and breathing seemed to fluctuate, and I thought, “Is this it?” Then he ate a decent portion of the pureed chicken and mashed potato dinner that was on the lunch menu. I said after he finished, “It’s time to say ‘Takk for maten’ “–Norwegian for “thanks for the meal.” He glanced my way and said, “Not really.” It sounded like a dry Nordic reply.
The hospital sent him back to Dobson, the nursing home, for the hospice care we had set up. We visited each day, starting on the Monday he returned there. Dad seemed to be holding his own despite what we knew, or had been told, or suspected, was happening beneath the surface. He ate a little. He seemed to like his coffee. He seemed to like our being there. He seemed to respond when we played him some of what we remembered as his favorite classical recordings. He seemed absorbed when I began reading aloud a tale of the Norse in Greenland (I thought he’d identify with a Viking story).
And then, several days later, I headed back to California. I had an idea I’d ask for a leave to come back to Chicago and see out Dad’s last days. But things moved fast after I departed, and he died the next day. As I said several weeks ago, I missed him already. I still do. The best memory I have of that last week, though, is the time we all spent together as a family, and the best thing that happened was that we all worked together at least in those few days.
I only meant to write enough to provide some context for the pictures that follow, which in a small way record his passing. There’s still a lot left to say. Sometime. Soon.
With my dad’s recent passing, and having made several (unrelated, except for my mood) recent visits to Chicago cemeteries, I’ve been thinking about epitaphs. Webster’s defines epitaph as “1. an inscription on or at a tomb or a grave in memory of the one buried there. 2.: a brief statement commemorating or epitomizing a deceased person or something past.”
Most of what’s carved on graveyard monuments is pretty simple: names, dates, and relationships. Beyond that, most of the common people buy at most a brief fragment of a sentiment. In Catholic cemeteries, I’ve seen a lot of “My Jesus Mercy.” On my dad’s parents’ grave, In largely Scandinavian-American (and Lutheran) ground, the message is “Christ My Hope.”
But except for the expense involved–I think we’re paying $150 to have “2012” carved on my dad’s headstone–I think a secular message might be reflect more the concerns of today’s future deceased Americans. I’m thinking of phrases that reflect the preoccupations of most of us for most of our waking life: Phrases like:
It’s my last night in Chicago for awhile–early morning, actually. I’ve stayed up way too late looking through a collection of letters Dad wrote when he was in Army basic training. That was in 1946, after World War II ended. The story we heard growing up, and I’ve got no reason to doubt it, is that Dad tried to enlist at the outset of the war but was rejected because he had a punctured eardrum. That condition gradually healed, and he was rated fit to serve and drafted in late 1945 and inducted into the Army in January 1946.
Part of his parents’ legacy that I heard about growing up was a collection of more than 100 letters my grandfather, Sjur Brekke, wrote my grandmother, Otilia Sieverson, during their courtship and early marriage in the first decade of the last century. (The courtship started at a Lutheran parish in Chicago, where he was a visiting minister in training and my grandmother’s family were charter members. Sjur was a smooth operator. We have a note he wrote to Otilia on the back of a business card; the subject was a couple of volumes of commentary on scripture he had “taken the liberty” of loaning her. He also offered to hook her up with more such volumes if she liked the first two.)
Dad’s father died in 1932, when Dad was 10, and he said his mother not only hung onto all those letters, but read and re-read them. She numbered them and kept each one in its original envelope; she wrote key phrases from each letter on the envelopes, apparently her way of prompting herself as to the contents. When she died in 1975, the letters passed on to my dad. They’re among the papers he left behind. (If you’re wondering about my grandmother’s letters to my grandfather, well, so do we. She destroyed them at some point after he died, apparently because she did not want strangers reading them.)
What I didn’t know, though, was that my grandmother kept a second letter archive. She saved all the correspondence Dad wrote during his year-plus in the Army, starting with a postcard from Fort Sheridan, north of Chicago, the day he arrived for processing.
There are about 75 of these letters in all–20 or so from his time in basic training, which took him to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, Texas, and another 50-some from his time serving in the occupation of Germany.
Leafing through the basic-training letters the other day, I felt like we were getting to know a person about whom we had only heard some vague accounts. One thing comes through very clearly: the Army wasn’t really for him. He was interested in learning what he could in the ranks–he was being trained in a field anti-aircraft battery–but he had his own agenda, which always seemed to come back to music and whether he could finagle a way into an Army band (he didn’t). He also loved the opportunity to see a part of the country, dry, desolate west Texas, that was completely unknown to him.
I read a few of the letters aloud the other day. One in particular delighted us. Dad describes a trip up to an artillery range to fire anti-aircraft and machine guns at aerial targets. It sounds like he enjoyed that somewhat. But he also liked the chance to camp out:
“Monday nite we slept under the stars on the New Mexican sand. The sand retains the heat pretty well and I had warm blankets along, so slept very comfortably. In fact it was a lot of fun. 4 or 5 of us slept near each other and sang songs and ate cookies and candy far after dark.”
Sounds like a kid at camp. He was also thrilled to go without shaving or bathing and said the grime made him “look as dark as a negro” (of whom there were none in his unit, of course). I’m not sure he ever really had any significant outdoors adventures before this. His parents were older and given to recreations like attending revival meetings. During an extended stay in Los Angeles in the early ’30s, they took Dad to see Amy Semple McPherson preach at her Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
The scan of the full letter is below. Click on the images for larger versions.
We will be some time going through the archive of pictures and other effects our dad left behind. There’s a lot there I don’t remember having seen before. For instance, my brother Chris brought out a binder of transparencies last night that included some stunning shots of our mom during their engagement and of my dad in the years before that. I’m posting a couple of my favorites from other times here.
Above is a shot that surfaced in the last decade or so. That’s Dad, at almost four months old, on December 26, 1921, which happened to be his saint’s day. His parents lived in Alvarado, Minnesota, a village just up the Red River of the North from Grand Forks, North Dakota. There’s something in the way my grandmother is bent over him, showing him that little ball, that seems almost profoundly gentle, attentive, and caring. (I think this is partly because she’s the one in focus here, not my dad). That short northern Minnesota winter daylight that just barely plays across her forehead also gives a feeling of a fleeting moment captured.
The picture below is one of Dad with my son Eamon, his first grandchild. I think Eamon was about eight months old when my brother Chris took this during a brief visit. I’ve always been struck by how serious they both look. It’s a beautiful picture of the two of them.
“…When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me. …”
“I sauntered about from rock to rock, from grove to grove, from stream to stream, and whenever I met a new plant I would sit down beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance, hear what it had to tell. I asked the boulders where they had been and whither they were going, and when night found me, there I camped. I took no more heed to save time or to make haste than did the trees or the stars. This is true freedom, a good, practical sort of immortality.”
That’s me and my dad and namesake, Stephen Daniel Brekke, back in 1955, when I was about a year or so old and he was 33 or 34. He was not a bad-looking guy, and he could rock a bow tie, as the young people say today. When my parents had this picture developed, they saw something they hadn’t noticed before — that something was amiss with my eyes. They took me to an ophthalmologist, and I was in glasses by the age of 18 months. But that’s another story.
Today’s story is that Dad died about 5 this afternoon, Chicago time. My sister, Ann, and my brothers, John and Chris, were with him when he went. Some of his grandkids had just visited. Chris’s wife, Patty, was there. A Lutheran minister, a fellow Norwegian-American, came in to say a prayer. John says his passing was as quiet, as peaceful, and as gentle as it could have been.
If this were a news story, we’d want to be getting to the cause of death. I think I hit upon the right description the other day: the weight of his ninety-plus years finally bore down on him. He’d had pneumonia. And emphysema. And crippling arthritis that virtually froze his knee joints and robbed him of his mobility. And a form of dementia that denied him the ability to communicate freely. And finally, congestive heart failure. Ann’s husband, Dan–the two of them were my dad’s primary caretakers for the last three years or so of his life and his main lifeline since our mom died nine years ago–reminded me that my dad never complained.
And he didn’t. If you asked him if he was in pain or uncomfortable, he’d come out with some formulation like, “I can’t say that I am.” It wasn’t until a month or so ago that Ann asked him if he was hurting after suffering an arm abrasion and he said, “I hurt all over.”
Bye, Pop. We miss you already. But we’re glad you’re not hurting any longer.
My brief stay in Chicago has included a couple of Summer of 2012 heat spikes, interspersed with less radical summer weather, as a frontal boundary oscillates across this part of the Midwest. Today’s National Weather Service forecast map for the Chicago region is orange in every direction, indicating a heat advisory. Temperatures in the city are expected to hit 100. Outside the city, up to 105. (I note that the forecast high in San Francisco today is … 63.)
Tom Skilling, the dean of Chicagoland TV weather forecasters, and a meteorologist who is unfailingly informative first and entertaining second, sums up today’s torrid conditions on the WGN/Tribune Chicago Weather Center blog:
“The blisteringly hot air mass responsible for 100-degree or hotter temperatures across sections of 19 states Tuesday re-expands into the Chicago area Wednesday. It’s on track to bring Chicago its fifth triple-digit high temperature of 2012—the most official 100+degree readings here of any year since 1988.
“Temperatures surge past 90-degrees for a 34th time this year at O’Hare and 35th time at Midway—extraordinary when you consider the average since weather records began in 1871 has been only 17 such days at O’Hare and 23 at Midway!
“…This summer’s warmth has been nothing if not persistent. If you needed any additional evidence this weather pattern has been unusual, WGN weather producer Bill Snyder, in surveying the city’s official temperature records, finds Chicago is to log an unprecedented 29th consecutive day of above normal temperatures—making this the most back-to-back days to post a surplus in the 5.5 years since a Dec. 10, 2006 through Jan. 14, 2007 mild spell in which above normal temperatures were recorded over 36 consecutive days.”
A subject I haven’t broached much in the past and one that’s become central part of my daily consciousness over the last couple of years: my dad’s decline and dire condition as the weight of ninety-plus years settles upon him. He’s up in a hospital in Evanston fighting his third bout with pneumonia in about four months. That’s just the current crisis. I could run through the full list of conditions besieging him and the disasters and indignities that have grown from them, but I know I’m only discovering what many, many other children of aged parents have already learned. The truth is that the poor guy is dying and beyond the power of science to heal or restore. But he is not beyond the power of love and caring, and the best thing that has happened during the last couple days is that my brothers and sister and I have been together to remember Dad, to talk about what we need to do for him, to talk to him, to let him know we’re here.
That’s all, for now. It’s a lot to take in. I’ll be reporting back. In the meantime, I’m thinking of this line:
“I depart as air–I shake my white locks at the runaway sun.”
That’s my mom, Mary Alice Hogan, posing with Old Glory. There’s no date on the picture, but I would guess this was the 4th of July and that she was about 16. That would place the picture in 1945 or ’46. A further guess: The picture was taken at her O’Malley-Moran grandparents’ place at 6524 South Yale Avenue in Chicago’s Engelwood district (the family moved there from their Stockyards neighborhood sometime between 1900 and 1910 and stayed through the early 1960s. The house was torn down sometime in the past 15 or 20 years, and there’s a vacant lot there now).
Below is my dad. The picture is actually dated September 30, 1928, when he would have been seven years old (and 14 months before Mom was born). I have no idea why he’s wearing the funny lady’s hat or carrying an American flag or wearing whatever that is around his neck. This would have been about three years after his family moved back to the city from Alvarado, Minnesota, where his dad was a Lutheran pastor for several parishes in town and the surrounding area. They lived on the South Side through 1930, at West 71st and South Ada streets. One other thing I take note of after staring hard at this picture: the suit that my dad’s wearing. That is some serious-looking fabric.